On White Flight:
White Flight is a cacophonous collage of disparate musical ideas that don’t even try to coexist and make sense together. They simply pile up, one on top of the other, and be the listener the one to make sense of the Babelic confusion. The first two songs are misleading in their melodic simplicity. “Now” is a demented, heavily-arranged aria that sounds like a collaboration between VanDyke Parks and Syd Barrett. “Pastora Divine” is a pastoral psychedelic singalong that Kevin Ayers could have concocted in the 1970s if backed by the Velvet Underground. By the third one, any pretense of logic begins to fall apart. The somnolent sparse blues “Solarsphere” is ripped apart by a roaring hard-rock riff and drowns in ambient-lysergic madness. “The Condition” and the jazz-electronic mayhem of “Timeshaker” evoke the anarchic psychedelic freak-outs of Red Crayola; while the disjointed chant with wah-wah organ of “Oz Icaro” and the brief exotic dance of “Galactic Seed” evoke the acid-folk eruptions of the Holy Modal Rounders, except that Roelofs employs a different generation of devices: breakbeats, digital noise, sound effects, vocal effects, non-rock instruments to conjure a sense of poetic detachment from anything that music is supposed to be. Roelofs ends the album in the tone that is more pensive and philosophical, and musically more convoluted, of “Deathhands” and “The Secret Sound.” His extreme message is the hyper-syncopated drum’n’bass and free-jazz hemorrage of “Superconductor” that ends with a cryptic whistle in a bed of crickets.
On LCD Soundsystem:
LCD Soundsystem was the project of James Murphy… He entered the disco-punk fray with the double-CD LCD Soundsystem (Capitol, 2005), an album that also includes all their early singles… Ultimately, the album asserts the primacy of the producer over the group: Murphy alone can do more and better than most of the entire electroclash crowd combined.
The 45-minute “45:33,” ostensibly a soundtrack for jogging, is an encyclopedia of electronic dance music, from Eurodisco to disco-punk to chill-out house music, as well as one of his artistic peaks… A minimalist iteration of simple figures on out-of-tune piano and archaic electronics constitutes the launching pad for an old-fashioned funk beat with vocals. When this fades out, its remnant is a piano figure that leads to a lengthy sequence in which that figure is transposed to xylophone and synthesizer. The beat becomes a sleek, pounding polyrhythm. A trombone duets with frenzied electronic keyboards. The speed doubles and duets with distorted Kraftwerk-ian vocals. The sixth movement wipes out everything that the previous movements have created with a delicate electronic texture, halfway between falling snowflakes and a Bach fugue.
Sound of Silver marks an improvement in terms of both musicianship and concept. The songs are longer and more complex while at the same time being more cohesive and organic. James Murphy is one of the few musicians after Brian Eno who can make the masses both dance and rock. This album does so over such a broad range of repertory formats that eventually represents a fresco of musical graffiti… Despite continuously reinventing itself, the album never feels eccentric or challenging. It radiates the majestic calm of a classic.
Between the Buried and Me, a black-metal outfit… matured via… Alaska (Victory, 2005)… [which] presented a sound that was still violently metal but perturbed by unpredictable un-metal events and capable of changing metal style within the same song…
Colors (2007) was conceived as one long seamless suite. After the almost neoclassical overture “Foam Born” and the growling but catchy “The Decade of Statues,” the panzer-grade frenzied attack of “Informal Gluttony” begins to hijack the sound with the paradisiac poppy refrain that pops up in the middle of it and then closes the piece. The eleven-minute “Sun of Nothing” boasts enough swerving guitars, devastating tempo shifts and genre-bending (mostly melodic) detours (even a piano jingle) to confuse the most attentive listener. But that’s nothing compared with what comes next. The exhilarating 13-minute collage (not just song) “Ants of the Sky” even begins with a tropical section (and clean vocals) that morphs to sound like a cover of the first King Crimson album but then soars with a shoegazing section (ecstatic vocals against guitar noise) and enters the black-metal section with an anthemic refrain repeated by the guitar solo. Then the instrumental bridge runs into a baroque organ-driven loop a la Yes (at triple speed, of course) and a new vocal section begins. That swirling motif returns in the form of a Slavic dance, leading to a new morbid Pink Floyd refrain on clean vocals, a lounge-jazz guitar solo and a salon-bluegrass square dance, before the guitar intones one more time the anthemic refrain. This stylistic merry-go-round segues seamlessly into the more uniform eight-minute “Prequel to the Sequel” that nonetheless includes a minute of waltzing musichall music before the primal shout that destroys it and implodes in another Pink Floyd-ian refrain; and this one segues into a brief bucolic instrumental, which then segues (with no respite) into the closing 14-minute juggernaut “White Walls.” This is one formidable slab of warped black-metal, in which the voice returns to its primal beastly form and a chain reaction of explosive rhythms keeps. Despite the brief soft intermezzo, the song is mostly prey to terrified screaming and terrifying drumming until one last acrobatic lightning-speed guitar melody that decays into one last waltzing musichall step and… into a piano solo that sounds like the finale of a Beethoven sonata. Capping the virtuoso playing of this entire album, Dan Briggs unleashes a celebrated bass solo in “Viridian.”
San Francisco-based Mamaleek achieved a tense hybrid of black-metal frenzy, industrial syncopation, shoegazing distortion and dark ambience on Mamaleek (2008)… the 18-minute “Shout On Children” bridges an alt-country overture with an ending of black-metal desperation via a droning choir that morphs into an abrasive radiation, alien footsteps, and operatic singing…
The sound on Fever Dream (2008) is generally denser and scarier. “I Can’t Stay Behind,” torn between recitation and shrieking, alternates violent outbursts of distortion and pastoral quiet. There are moments of relentless tension in “Go Into The Wilderness,” in the horror vignette “Winter Has A Grave And I’m In It,” and especially in the savage dance of “I Saw The Beam In My Sister’s Eye.” …Out of nowhere, the band also discovers jazz: “Stars Begin To Fall” explodes a conventional bebop theme and the album also contains a cover of Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology.”
French electronica duo M83… transposed My Bloody Valentine’s shoegazing psychedelia into an age in which keyboards had replaced guitars as the pivotal sound-effect instrument; or, if one prefers, they took Brian Eno’s Discrete Music and applied it to the age of super-doom…
Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (2003) fulfills the promise of M83’s first album with a wildly intense and gloriously unpredictable style that manages to bridge Bach, Brian Eno, My Bloody Valentine and Terry Riley, while remaining within the canon of rock music, replacing the guitar with the electronic keyboards and abandoning the vocals as the center of mass of the “song”. In one of the most eloquent aesthetic moves of the early 21st century, M83’s duo… coined a musical language that was both ethereal and ominous, woozy and abrasive, celestial and gloomy, spiritual and violent, light as a feather and massive like a boulder.
…Hurry Up We’re Dreaming (2011) is Anthony Gonzalez’s exhilarating sonic experience. Here the singer and producer augmented his symphonic synths with technocratic drum machines and high-tech arrangements to produce maximum emotional impact. Hence the ethereal cosmic pan-ethnic chant of “Intro,” that sounds like a collaboration between Enigma and Sinead O’Connor, and the Peter Gabriel-ish angst-filled shout “Reunion.” Despite the herculean effort, Gonzalez’s incursion into mainstream music largely fails because “Midnight City” is the Pet Shop Boys without the killer hooks, “Claudia Lewis” is syncopated synth-pop of the 1980s without the energetic punk element, the Zen-like elegy “Soon My Friend” evokes psychedelic chants of the 1960s without the zany spirit, “Steve McQueen” is bombastically hummable but also lazily repetitive, and “Wait” cries and agonizes in a crystalline ambience reminiscent of latter-day Pink Floyd without the psychological depth… There is no overall concept to offer a lifesaver to the weaker songs of this sprawling work. Each one has to stand on its own. Alas, pop is pop is pop: no matter how vast the arsenal of state-of-the-art tools is and how badly Gonzalez tries to inject life into old melodies, most of what is offered here is doomed to rapid oblivion. There is no doubt, however, that Gonzalez has improved both his vocal skills and his musical vision, and is probably ready for the rock opera or concept album that will vindicate his ambition.
Deafheaven… fused black metal and shoegaze-pop on the four lengthy suites of Roads To Judah… The twelve-minute “Violet” was the prototype of what would come in the future: dense sheets of guitar distortion soon joined by a hurricane of blastbeats and beastly growls, but soon settling for a martial melodic elegy. Their strategy, best personified by “Language Games,” was to build up inbearable intensity and then relent releasing heartbreaking melodies that resemble religious hymns (albeit sung in the voice of a werewolf who is digesting viscera)…
Mostly the much hyped (i.e. accessible and even melodic) follow-up, Sunbather… betrayed the influence of French black metal, but the poetic skills of that school are replaced here with sheer sonic density… The opening of “Vertigo” is so imbued with medieval pomp that it recalls King Crimson’s first album (with the mellotron replaced by the guitar). Finally a whirlwind of guitar distortions (in the fashion of dream-pop of the 1980s) announces that the metal part is about to take off, and what follows is mainly the stubborn repetition of the same scream, chord and drumbeat, a fact which, at best, can evoke an Indian raga (at worst, a Scottish military fanfare), and then it all goes up in flames as a frantic shoegazing firestorm.… “The Pecan Tree” seems to exist only to display the range that the band can afford: a first half that is all supersonic blastbeats and massive distortions (credit goes to the guitarist for maintaining an elegiac mood throughout his maelstrom), a second half that is all gentle and timid, and a third part that synthetizes the two in a martial hummable finale. This album, that never terrorizes and certainly never disgusts, could mark the moment when black metal, or, better, “blackgaze,” became not only mainstream but the antithesis of itself.
Jahseh Onfroy, aka XXXTentacion, a juvenile delinquent from Florida, became a rap sensation despite the scarce talent demonstrated in his early recordings… But his lame hit “Look at Me” (2015) and the mixtape Revenge (2017) somehow appealed to those who enjoyed hatred, vulgarity, and plain stupidity. The collections 17 (2017) and ? (2018) generated a lot of hype although the artistic level was virtually non-existent. In 2015 he was arrested for a robbery, and in 2016 he was arrested after beating his pregnant girlfriend. He became a mass phenomenon despite having no record contract with a label (hence no marketing), very little support from the media (that mostly despised his persona) and very little airplay. By the end of 2019 he had accumulated almost four billion streams.
…? opens with an arrogant “Introduction” in which he asks the listener to be open to his alternative sound, which proved that he had no idea of what music was being made by alternative musicians. Ironically, the music that comes next is anything but original. However, this is certainly a varied collection with smart arrangements, from the catchy and dramatic singer-songwriter performances of “Alone Part 3” and “Pain = Bestfriend” to the quasi-orchestral pop ballad of “Numb” via the limping synth-pop ditty “Moonlight” and the autotuned trap-soul ballad “$$$,” ending with the orchestral elegy of “Before I Close My Eyes.” The nocturnal jazz-rap “Infinity (888)” samples sampled Stan Getz and Bill Evans’s “The Peacocks.” He weds frenzied rap and desperate crooning in “The Remedy For A Broken Heart” over neoclassical guitar strumming. The pseudo-industrial hip-hop of “Floor 555” sounds like a lightweight version of Foetus or Nine Inch Nails… “I Don’t Even Speak Spanish Lol” fuses reggae, pop and hip-hop whose melody has the same appeal of Madonna’s “Isla Bonita.” As a singer/rapper, he has coined a unique way of weeping, perhaps best displayed in the understated, piano-based, mantra-like “Changes.” His most popular song from this album was the pretty tedious but catchy “Sad.” Not many were so capable of mixing extroverted and introverted moments, especially in the depressed emo-rap genre.
XXXTentacion was shot dead in 2018 at the age of 20. Not a big loss for music. Probably a big loss for the media because his antics certainly created controversy and opportunity for articles.
Scottish producer, dj and vocalist Sophie Xeon (1986) crafted intellectual dance-pop that combines nursery school refrains and heavily electronic deconstructed cubistic production… Her singles are like a remix of Aqua’s first album done by a quantum physicist.
Jazz music was very much a continuation of blues music, except that it took advantage of the instruments of the marching band. The jazz musician was basically “singing” just like the blues singers even though he was playing an instrument instead of using his vocals. The kind of dynamics and of improvisation was identical. The call-and-response structure was replicated in the dialogue between solo instrument and ensemble. Compared with European music, that for centuries had “trained” the voice to sound as perfect as the instruments, jazz music moved in the opposite direction when it trained the instruments to sound as emotional as the human voice of the blues. After all, many jazz instrumentalists made their living accompanying blues singers in the vaudeville circuit. The main difference between jazz and blues, i.e. the heavy syncopation, was the original contribution of ragtime.
Thus the marching bands contributed the instruments, blues singers contributed the improvisation, and ragtime contributed the syncopation (that ragtime had, in turn, taken from the “minstrel shows”). Jazz as a separate genre of music was born at the intersection of collective improvisation and heavy syncopation. Another defining feature was that it was mainly instrumental (blues music was mainly vocal). For some observers of the time jazz music may have sounded simply like the instrumental side of blues music, or the group version of ragtime, or a non-marching club-oriented evolution of the marching bands.
On Louis Armstrong:
Cornet/trumpet player Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong revolutionized both the instrumental and the vocal style of jazz… [His] performances contrasted with King Oliver’s style because Armstrong’s instrument dominated the proceedings: Armstrong had introduced a dose on individualism in jazz that was the antithesis of its original socialist principles. Jelly Roll Morton had used the solos to increase the sophistication of his orchestral music, but his focus was still on the sound of the ensemble. It was Armstrong who shifted the emphasis towards the vocabulary of the extended virtuoso solo. Solos became longer and longer, while displaying an even stronger sense of control.
Armstrong applied a similar technique to his vocals, which did more than just popularize “scat” singing: they invented a way to sing without singing. His singing often sounded like a conversation. Sometimes his vocals were so estranged from the music that it sounded like he didn’t know what song he was singing. The voice had always been an instrument, but Armstrong started the trend that would turn it into the most malleable of instruments, away from the passion of blues, the conventions of the opera and the frigidity of pop. Armstrong turned the human voice into not only an instrument but an instrument that was as legitimate for improvising as any other instrument of the orchestra.
…Armstrong became famous for his improvisations on covers of blues and pop standards. In many ways, he taught the whole jazz world how to improvise on a theme. At the same time, the charming and flamboyant player knew how to entertain an audience with the humblest of musical tools. But his contributions as a composer are rather dismal. He was more of a popular icon and entertainer than an auteur. This too influenced generations of jazz musicians who cared more for the marginal contribution of their delivery (for the “look and feel” of their music) than for the core contribution of their compositions. With Armstrong jazz became more style than substance. His influence was enormous, but it is debatable what kind of influence it was. He was certainly instrumental in making jazz music acceptable by the white middle class, and in making it a worldwide phenomenon.
On Art Tatum:
Art Tatum… disengaged jazz piano from the formulas of New York’s stride piano and of New Orleans, and opened up unlimited horizons for it, although he personally never ventured into the avantgarde, preferring to stick to his job of ornating the melody with a virtually unlimited arsenal of tricks. His dexterity, introducing a degree of improvisation that had not been known before, resulted not only in a display of piano acrobatics (he could play the most complex passage at a speed of 400 beats per minute) but in a much broader vocabulary and a much more expressive language. He coined the language, but he failed to write the poem: his style was a baroque infrastructure of embellishments. That colossal apparatus of technique was tested mainly on brief pop tunes, it was never adequately employed for a major composition. Fame and respect came in 1933 with a breakneck version of Nick LaRocca’s “Tiger Rag” (march 1933), and his first hit came with a solo-piano cover of Vincent Youmans’ pop tune “Tea for Two” (march 1933). His repertory would remain of this (very trivial) quality. He mostly performed solo because his quasi-polyphonal playing almost simulated a band, and few musicians could play at his speed anyway.
On Paul Whiteman:
Paul Whiteman, a former violinist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, who organized a band in 1919 in San Francisco band and moved to New York in 1920, was the epitome of white musicians aping the new genre and trying to cash in on it, mixing pop vocalists such as Bing Crosby (1926) with white virtuoso instrumentalists… [But] Whiteman was not a complete rip-off, as he commissioned George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), which he premiered with much fanfare (thus legitimizing jazz as a form of highbrow music), the concert made jazz acceptable and credible to the white establishment… As usual with stars that sold millions of records, everything that Whiteman “invented” was considered relevant and everything that he did not invent was considered irrelevant. Whatever (dubious) merits his orchestra had, they were due to Grofe and to the jazz soloists. Despite the very poor average quality of his music, Whiteman’s influence was enormous, and not only on white America. For a while, Whiteman (who was as jazz as Al Jolson was black) was marketed to white America as the epitome of jazz music, and therefore ranks as one of the great swindles of the record industry. In reality, he slowed down the progress in jazz music and almost single-handedly destroyed it. Not much of what he recorded, and certainly not Gershwin’s (rather mediocre) piece, was worthy of the repertory of so many humble jazz contemporaries.
On Raymond Scott:
By far the most creative of the white jazzmen of the swing era was New York pianist Raymond Scott (real name Harry Warnow), whose Quintette (actually a sextet) specialized in quirky tunes with odd time signatures set to a frantic swing pace… Starting in 1941, Carl Stalling used snippets of Scott’s tunes for countless episodes of cartoons, making Raymond Scott a household name in the business of cartoon soundtracks. Raymond Scott had already moved on, founding (1946) “Manhattan Research”, the world’s first electronic music studio, for which he invented several electro-mechanical devices… While very active in devising ever more creative ways of composing, he actually composed very little with those devices. The only non-jazz recording he made was the 3-LP electronic album Soothing Sounds for Baby (1962), that he conceived as children’s music, but, de facto, a predecessor of both ambient and minimalist music.
The “swing” era seemed to last an eternity. It was the first black phenomenon to give a name to an era of the USA (or any western country). Jazz music was acknowledged and imitated throughout the world, even by classical composers such as Stravinsky. But, overall, big bands and swing gave jazz a bad name. Jazz became a “dance craze”, a form of light entertainment, a career for musicians who failed at serious music, an industry (not an art) whose only goal was to sell a lot of records (selling a lot of records had become the new trendy way to become rich)…
The first major innovation that destabilized the world order introduced by swing was “bebop”… The rapid decline of the big bands [after WWII and the end of Prohibition], and the revival of Tin Pan Alley’s pop music, favored the cause of the dissidents within jazz music who were preaching against the commercial sell-out of the big bands. These isolated intellectuals were offering a musical message that did not depend on the taste of the masses. They marked a renewal of the thematic material, away from the (white) pop themes favored by swing orchestras, back to the blues themes of the past and towards original compositions that better reflected the zeitgeist. They marked a regression towards the small club and the small ensemble, and from the big band to the small combo. They also marked a progression towards a more personal, intimate and heartfelt form of music. Bebop was a more “private” form of expression. Bebop was a music to listen to, as opposed to dance to.
Jazz musicians had been, first and foremost, entertainers. Now they became experimenters, explorers, even scientists. Instead of playing what came natural, the bebop improviser tried to play what was not natural. The chamber-jazz detours of the swing era contributed to the advent of bebop, but, mostly, bebop was a completely new phenomenon, that did not quite evolve from the previous tradition but represented a complete subversion of that tradition.
…The only reason to consider swing and bebop as branches of the same musical genre is that they shared the same instrumentation and the passion for improvisation (and, mostly, the color of the skin).
…The core of bebop music was more than just the format: it was an existential mood that almost harked back to the blues. The soloist of bebop was a poet and a philosopher, no longer only an entertainer. Thus the syncopation (meant to facilitate dancing) also became obsolete. In a sense, bebop marked the (temporary) demise of syncopation from jazz music, the emancipation of jazz from the dancehall and its transfer to the loft. It was no longer music for the masses, but music for the elite.
…Bebop downplayed the rhythmic aspect and emphasized the emotional power of the solo. It reduced the complexity of the polyphony and increased the importance of style. It fostered a new degree of melodic invention. Bop phrasing toyed with rhythm in a way that gave meaning even to the pause between two notes. The rhythm section was simplified, anchoring it to bass and drums, thus releasing the guitar and the piano (swing’s rhythmic pillars) from their time-keeping duties. As the bass grew in importance (as it had started doing with Jimmy Blanton), the drums began to “accent” the music rather than merely beat a tempo. The rhythm section, that had been the most mechanic part of the ensemble, acquired a new degree of freedom (“no continuity of beat”, as Charlie Parker said). This loose, restrained concept of rhythm allowed the soloist to “think”. Dissonances, polyrhythms, new tonal colors and irregular phrasing were adopted enthusiastically.
For decades jazz music had been moving towards larger and larger orchestras, towards more and more organized music. Bebop made a sharp turn towards smaller ensembles and less organized music.
Even their appearance changed dramatically: the bopper’s uniform included a hat, sunglasses and a goatee, not the tuxedo of the swing era.
…Ironically, this more sincere and austere strand of black music alienated the original audience of jazz music: the blacks of the ghettos. It attracted a new audience of white intellectuals and eccentrics, an audience that had nothing to do with the historical background of jazz music… Even more ironically, bebop became “blacker” as it moved away from the big business: while the swing era had been dominated (with few exceptions) by white big bands, the protagonists of the bebop (with the notable exception of Lennie Tristano) era were all black.
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